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reality is broken

games, participation, and learning

In today’s reading, McGonigal writes:

To participate wholeheartedly in something means to be self-motivated and self-directed, intensely interested and genuinely enthusiastic. If we’re forced to do something, or if we do it halfheartedly, we’re not really participating.   If we don’t care how it all turns out, we’re not really participating.   If we’re passively waiting it out, we’re not really participating. And the less we fully participate in our everyday lives, the fewer opportunities we have to be happy. It’s that plain and simple. The emotional and social rewards we really crave require active, enthusiastic, self-motivated participation.

This is a challenge I often see in the mechanics of the classroom, and I think it applies to both faculty and students. On some level, college classes are voluntary. No one is required by law to attend college. As students we choose our major. There are some required classes once we make that choice, but there are also many electives, like this course. As faculty we mostly choose the courses we teach; we also have freedom in how they are designed. We have all chosen to participate in this course. But it’s not that simple.

Obviously I am being paid to teach this class and wouldn’t teach it if that were not the case. And you all will receive credit and a grade for this course and wouldn’t take it if that were not the case. So we are all involved in a transaction here. This leads us to economic calculations about cost and benefit. As McGonigal points out, we care how “it all turns out,” but primarily in terms of our own individual benefit. Who among us is really committed to this website turning out?

I don’t offer this up as some kind of moralizing about how we could all be better. Instead, the point, as McGonigal is trying to suggest, is that the structure of courses inhibits our ability to participate in the way the she describes above. We’ve all be institutionalized to a certain degree to approach the classroom by making the kinds of calculations that ultimately inhibit learning and participation.

Think, for example, of Bernard Suits’ concept of unnecessary obstacles. How would that apply in the context of a classroom? Do we embrace unnecessary obstacles here? Or do we look for the path of least resistance toward our goal? Many of you write about the pleasures of failure in gaming… How often do we risk failure in the classroom? Or do we always play it safe? Again, I don’t think these are personal faults on our part. These are problems with the structure and design of education.

As you probably already know, it doesn’t change much when you get into the work world. How do we switch these things around? Or is McGonigal headed down the wrong path?


About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo


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